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Simon on Sondheim

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen Sondheim (and I know some aren’t, but I don’t understand how that’s possible), you may enjoy today’s NYT review of his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It’s the Sunday featured review, for which the editors called on Paul Simon. I read it, and write this, as I listen to the cast album from the Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

I just love the photo above of Sondheim at the piano in the mid-1930s, drawn from the book and reprinted in the NYT review. Speaking of which, here’s a review excerpt:

“Company,” one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, is often cited as another example of his cerebral, cold writing. The plot is a bitter examination of the “joy” of marriage and the existential loneliness of its unmarried protagonist, Bobby. Some have speculated that Bobby is an auto biographical stand-in for Sondheim, although he dismisses this as the trap of attributing the character of the art to the character of the artist. It’s harder to read autobiography into the words of a composer who writes for theater than it is for a pop music counterpart. A song from “the heart” of a character has to be truthful, but if it isn’t, it’s not the author’s lie — it’s the character’s. But if a pop singer or songwriter writes a love song, a song of regret or even a bit of inscrutable doggerel like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” it’s autobiography. The lyricist in a musical is writing the art of the character. Both are pathways to a truth, but there is a profound difference in process.

To be fair to Sondheim’s critics, the heart/mind dilemma is a constant for many songwriters, myself included. If a writer composes a lyric with a complex thought or vivid image and fails to say it well, then the lines seem pretentious. If the songwriter goes for the heart and misses, then it’s sentimental. Sondheim is the farthest thing from a sentimental songwriter that I know, but his songs of the heart are shaded with rueful sorrow (“Send In the Clowns”) and translucent compassion.

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